rough notes

Halifax and Africville 2: Elaborations

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Recent discussions (online and in person) regarding Halifax‘s relationship with Africville have kept the issue in the fore of my mind as of late, and forced me to ruminate further on the subject of racism and remembrance. (Before going any further, however, I’d like to state that no recent or particular event has brought on these digressions but for the constant reminder of the systemic racism that is part of our Canadian heritage.)

I contend that Africville, as it once stood, was a tight-knit community that stood beyond the pale of proper urban development, mainly due to the colour of its “Black Court”, Lawren S. Harris (1921).inhabitants. This is not a unique opinion, but one that follows the general consensus on the subject through reading and research on the community. The common consensus regarding Africville, in fact, is that years of passive neglect by Halifax’s “City Fathers” convinced the municipality to eventually relocate the village residents ‘for the sake of the community’. This has been elaborated online by Kim Peterson (2004), Pamela Brown (1998), and extensively documented in the 1971 Africville Relocation Report by Don Clairmont and Dennis Magill – now available online in PDF format, courtesy of Dalhousie University.

The neighbourhood, sitting on the north shore of the Halifax Peninsula, was without municipal water and sewer services, paved roads, as well as garbage collection (Report 61). Some land that Africville residents lived on had been expropriated for rail service in the early 1900s, and then rezoned for industrial use through to the 1940s and 1950s – while the community still lived on the site. As the Relocation Report details, the City had gone so far as to relocate its municipal dump to the borders of Africville in the 1950s (Report 68). Such actions demonstrate that Africville’s needs were ‘out of sight, out of mind’ to Halifax, and that, as the Chief Justice of the Nova Supreme Court stated, the issues endemic to Africville were historically “created by whites, because time after time, year after year, municipal councils had ignored the problem” (Report 68).

To put it simply, the residents of Africville were rarely consulted regarding the delivery of municipal services, as the municipality never expected to deliver the services in the first place. Turning to the Report, again, makes plain the systemic racism seen within Halifax Council and its bureaucracy. In 1915, a city engineer wrote that Africville is an industrial district, and that “industrial operations should be assisted in any way . . . we may be obliged to consider the future of the industry first” (qtd. in Report, 102). In 1942, meanwhile, a water line was proposed to be blasted through the bedrock down to the community but was cancelled as it was assumed that Africville would soon be relocated (Report 99). (Africville would not be relocated, forcibly, until the late 1960s). Without sounding crass, I hardly think that the residents of south-end or central Halifax would have put up with a similar lack of basic municipal services for decades.

I do not want to dwell much longer on these passively racist policies that turned Africville into a slum, or at the very least prevented it from developing into a community with basic municipal services. These policies are well known and in the public domain. Please read the digitized copy of Clairmont and Magill’s Relocation Report for further context. (I find Chapter Three, Pages 68-73 rather enlightening and fairly concise regarding the civic inaction and municipal policies that would lead to the forced relocation.)

My concern here is not to buttress established fact, but to force a remembrance. Residents of Halifax will acknowledge the story of Africville, if forced to consider this dark part of their heritage, but often will rather forget about this period, or assume that all is water under the bridge. Consider, for instance, the June 30, 2007 article by Halifax Chronicle-Herald columnist Peter Duffy, who questioned why “white Halifax” must “shoulder” the guilt its past. Its another case of “out of sight, out of mind”.

That Africville was but a small community of 400 residents or was one of several urban slums to have existed in Canada should not diminish the gravitas of its history. Nor should we, as a people, simply acknowledge these dark stains on our heritage and move on. As the Relocation Report shows, Africville was more than just a collection of derelict houses, but a distinct and legitimate community, consisting of people who lived distinct lives, who had families and occupations, and had personal stories. The Relocation Report does an incredible job at documenting the voices of the people who lived in Africville, including their thoughts on Halifax’s neglect of the village, its demolition, and their forced relocation. These voices are the voices of a disenfranchised people, and frankly,these are the voices of our parents and grandparents within greater Halifax.

Certainly not all of Halifax was racist, nor is all of Halifax racist. And certainly, there were other instances of such racist policies in Nova Scotia, and in Canada. The prevalence of prejudice does not mean we should ignore it, though. It is true that not all communities had running water in the 1940s in Canada, however, the very proximity of Africville to an urban centre the size of peninsular Halifax should have granted it basic services. Systemic racism destroyed this community, and it must be acknowledged, and remembered, on a regular basis.

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Written by mitchellirons

March 13, 2008 at 10:34 pm

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